Spring 1984, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 15-33.

Kathleen Fischer Hart and Thomas N. Hart: The Call to Holiness in Christian Marriage
      The Call to Holiness in Christian Marriage

Although married life appears ordinary, it is the kind of milieu in which Jesus obeyed the Father and is the context for a couple's growth in Christian holiness.

Drs. Kathleen Fischer Hart and Thomas N. Hart teach theology and do counseling in Seattle, Washington. They are coauthors of The First Two Years of Marriage. Thomas Hart is also author of Living Happily Ever After: Toward a Theology of Christian Marriage.

MOST Christians marry and live out the greater part of their lives in the married vocation. They concern themselves with making a living, maintaining a home, learning to relate to one another, and raising children. Yet few married Christians in the past considered these interests, which absorb the greater portion of their adult years, as their primary path to holiness. They thought holiness lay elsewhere. There are several reasons for this failure to recognize marriage as a fundamental context for the living out of Christian discipleship.

Priestly and religious vocations have traditionally been exalted as the principal roads to sanctity. Free from the worldly concerns which occupy ordinary Christians, priests and religious could pursue the spiritual life unencumbered by such distractions as solving marriage conflicts, making mortgage payments, or compaigning for good city government. Vocations to the priesthood and the religious life were calls to a higher or more perfect life. Those who chose to marry saw themselves, in many cases, as second-class citizens. Holiness, they reasoned, must consist in imitating as far as possible the spirituality of priests and religious. Some tried to set aside time for daily personal prayer or for retreats and days of recollection. Others said part of the divine office, looked for forms of penance to practice, or sought apostolates to which they could devote some time. Still missing, however, was the conviction that holiness could be found within the circumstances of marriage and family life itself.

The Second Vatican Council marks an important shift in this attitude toward Christian marriage. To begin with, the council blurs the distinction between first- and second-class Christians in the church, a distinction built up over many centuries. In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, instead of beginning with the church's hierarchical structure, which points up a sharp distinction between rulers and ruled, teachers and taught, sanctifiers and sanctified, it first describes the church as the entire people of God, the whole body of Christ.

With this image of the church as background, the chapter entitled "The Call of the Whole Church to Holiness" emphasizes that all God's people are called to the fullness of Christian sanctity, and that sanctity is available to all in and through their particular vocations. Whatever the duties and circumstances of their lives, Christians will grow in holiness in and through these very conditions. Speaking directly to married people, the council states: "Married couples and Christian parents should follow their own proper path to holiness by faithful love, sustaining one another in grace throughout the entire length of their lives."(1) Vatican II thus lays the foundation for a theology of marriage based on the shape of sanctity inherent in married life itself.

During the decades since Vatican II, theologians have expanded the council's insights on Christian marriage. In the past, at least in the Roman Catholic church, such theology was mainly the work of celibates. This is no longer the case. Married Christians are now drawing on their own experience to develop this theology.(2) Three themes of this emerging theology are especially germane to an understanding of the call to holiness in marriage: marriage as sacrament, marriage as vocation to love, and marriage and the church. We will develop each theme in turn.

Theologians are recovering the ancient Christian conviction that the married couple themselves administer the sacrament of matrimony to one another. In other words, the priest is not the principal minister of this sacrament; the man and woman who marry one another are. During the centuries when the church was assuming greater control over the civil as well as the sacramental aspects of marriage, this realization was lost, and the priest became more and more central to the religious ceremony.(3) Today many priests are attempting to make clear that they act only as principal witness of the couple's own conferring and celebration of the sacrament.


A key insight in the contemporary understanding of marriage is that the sacrament does not consist primarily in the Christian marriage liturgy. Marriage is a lifelong process, and the wedding celebration marks only one point in that journey. The sacramental aspect of marriage is not confined to that moment. Rather, it is the whole way a Christian man and woman live their lives together that makes their marriage a sacrament. Understanding how this is so depends on a realization of what a sacrament is and does.

When we speak of sacrament, we generally think first of the seven ritual sacraments such as baptism, Eucharist, and matrimony itself. These sacraments are signs which make present what they signify. Baptism initiates us into the Christian community by uniting us with the death and resurrection of Christ as we go down into the waters and are drawn out again. Eucharist deepens our union with Christ and the members of his ecclesial body as we share in the broken bread and the wine. In every sacrament something visible -- water, oil, bread and wine -- signifies what is invisible, the gracious presence of God.

However, the notion of sacrament includes not only these seven signs, but two more basic levels of sacramentality. Christ himself is a sacrament, the primordial sacrament. The church also is a sacrament. Christ is the primary sacrament since he makes visibly present in the fullest way the love of God for us all. He is "the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation" (Col. 1:15). As John says in the prologue to his Gospel: "No one has seen the Father; the only-bogotten Son, who lives in the bosom of the Father, has made him known" (John 1:18).

Just as Christ is the sacrament of God, making visible and effective God's love for us, so the church is the sacrament of Christ. Church here does not refer to an institution or a building, but to the people of God, the whole body of Christ. The Second Vatican Council endorsed this understanding of the church as sacrament. Christians in their lives are a revelation of God to people. Those who belong to Christ are the incarnation of the risen Christ in the world today. They reveal and make present the healing, forgiveness, and compassion of God.

Marriage and family life are the church in miniature; Vatican II spoke of the family as the "domestic church."(4) Married life is sacramental because the love of God is revealed through the married couple's love for one another. Whether we look at the marriage ceremony or the life that unfolds from it, the man and woman's gift of self to each other is the sacrament. It is the place where God appears. How does this happen? Many married couples believe in the sacramentality of their marriages, and are convinced that they are meant to give God's love to one another. Yet such love remains a lofty ideal, somehow remote from the world of juggled demands and imperfect communication.

Jesus' message is that Christian love is lived out in the very midst of these daily details. Jesus found God in the ordinariness of family life and work, with its joys and sorrows, its deaths and resurrections. It is there that the grace, surprise, and healing of God appears. Nowhere is this message as apparent as in Jesus' parables. In stories like those of the lost son (Luke 15:11-32), the mustard seed (Luke 13:18-19), and the vineyard laborers (Matt. 20:1-16), we find people dealing with very ordinary events of life. There are fathers and sons trying to work out a reconciliation. There is the pain and the miracle of growth. And there are decisions about a day's work and just wages. Yet Jesus tells us that it is in the midst of just such ordinary human events that we find God. The parables sum up the meaning of the incarnation itself: God is present in human life.

A married couple must believe that God is serious about this life if they are to live out the sacramentality of their life together. There is no ideal life of Christian love free from visits from in-laws, noisy family meals, sex, paying bills, and watching TV. Everything about one's partner can be a sacrament of God's creative and healing love: her or his body, freedom, feelings, work, play, or prayer. Christian couples experience God's love in their love, God's call in the challenge of their life together, and God's creativity in the gift of their children.

Sacraments give the grace they signify. As sacrament to one another, husband and wife become revelation and grace for each other. Each is an important, perhaps the most important, channel of grace for the other, for grace includes God's graciousness to human beings and the transforming effect which that graciousness has upon us when we are open to it. The graciousness of God touches married lives both as comfort and as challenge, and each of these aspects produces growth. When couples experience joy and recreation together, they know God's grace as comfort. Similarly, when close living challenges marriage partners to be less anxious about things or to change spending patterns, they are experiencing God's grace as challenge.(5)

This sacramentality includes a couple's sexual relationship. Christian theologians have concentrated chiefly on questions of sexual morality, and have not developed very fully the idea that sexual love can mediate the experience of God. But for many married couples sex is one of the places where human love is most powerfully spoken. In and through the bodily love of their spouse, they experience the wonder of God's creation. Sex is for them a word of God incarnate, making visible and tangible the otherwise invisible closeness, gentleness, tenderness, and fidelity of God's love. The healing of married love reaches us through the medium of our bodies, and sex can be a deep experience of the unity we seek to create in our life together. As a profound experience of knowing and being known, and being loved in the midst of this intimate knowledge, sexual relating reveals the unconditional love of God for us.

Besides being grace and revelation for one another, married couples and their families are also sacraments to the world. They must be aware of the larger human community in all their decisions about money, possessions, time, and energy. This concern for others is shown in many ways. The family life-style can reveal the gospel values of simplicity and generosity. By opening their home to others, they can live out the New Testament concern for hospitality. Church and community call out for service. In addition, the pattern of their relationship itself is a sacrament, revealing to other couples the meaning of faithful love. Whatever forms are chosen, a couple's Christian growth demands involvement in the larger human struggles for justice and mercy.


The call to love which is central to marriage as sacrament is also the heart of marriage as vocation. We sometimes think of a Christian vocation as the call to a particular life-style such as priesthood, religious life, the married or single state. But these are all just different ways of living out the one Christian vocation, the Call to love. Married people are challenged to love one another in the spirit of Christ, thus living the great commandment especially well. Marriage is a call to love one particular imperfect human being as Christ loves him or her. Such love requires several Christian virtues. Among the most important are faithfulness, forgiveness, and a commitment to growth.

The church's concern for the permanence of Christian marriage flows from what marriage seeks to reveal. Husband and wife are to love one another as Christ loves us (Eph. 5; John 10). Christ's love is love for the sinner, and it is faithful unto death. As a marriage moves from the stage of romantic love to that of committed love, couples discover that this ideal of fidelity means loving another flesh-and-blood human being, with all his or her imperfections. The love that is present and that is being created is a sign and a share in what Christ is doing in the marriage. What Christ came to redeem is the pain and struggle, the gaps in the love between husband and wife. So we need not despair when we become aware of our failures to communicate well or of our selfishness. When a man and woman covenant their faithfulness to one another, God also covenants faithfulness to both of them; and God's faithfulness gives them the courage to embark on, and persist in, this challenging adventure of loving.

Like faithfulness, forgiveness is a key virtue in the married vocation. In a marital relationship we discover not only that we have each married a limited human being, but that we both need forgiveness again and again. It is easy to pile up hurts and use them against a partner when we are angry. Forgiveness means a willingness to stop using failures as weapons. It helps to be reminded of the quality of Jesus' forgiveness. He forgave the one who denied him (John 21) and those who put him to death (Luke 23:34). And when he was asked, "Lord, how often shall someone sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus replied, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven" (Matt. 18:21-22).

The call to love within Christian marriage necessarily involves a commitment to growth. Fidelity is not simply staying with someone. It includes a willingness to grow and to be with our partner as he or she grows. A marriage and both partners in the marriage go through many stages during the course of a lifetime. It is even possible to say that within every marriage there are several marriages that succeed one another over time: laying the foundations, having children, establishing careers, emptying the nest, adjusting to retirement, facing death.(6) Each of these changes draws the married couple into the process of death and resurrection. They must always be letting go of past ways of being and doing -- perhaps letting go even of a dream for the marriage -- and open to new realities in the relationship. The practice of love necessarily brings Christians into the paschal mystery of Christ. In light of this mystery a couple can come to view the discomfort of change as an invitation and opportunity, forcing them out of old patterns into new life.

Commitment to growth includes willingness to deal with differences in a marriage. Those who marry are unique individuals; when they live in a close relationship, conflict is inevitable. Whether differences center on furniture arrangements in the living room, money management, or the selection of a vacation spot, they provide one of the principal occasions for gift-giving in a marriage. Differences frequently require compromise, a letting go which is the path to greater unity. When couples approach differences in a spirit of Christian love, these differences can lead to greater understanding, trust, and closeness. On the way, however, I may be asked to lay down my life for my friend.


Marriage is a challenging vocation. This is especially true in our present cultural context. Divorce rates are high. In light of the pressures of marriage and the constantly changing values of the surrounding culture, many today are reluctant to make permanent commitments. Perhaps more than ever before, married couples need the support of a Christian community to live out their call to holiness.

Marriage is a sacrament of faith. Prayer and the Christian sacraments enable couples to keep this faith vision of marriage alive. The Christian community holds before husband and wife the gospel challenge to love, forgiveness, and faithfulness. It also strengthens individuals to live a life that calls for a constant battle with selfishness and discouragement.

The Eucharist is one of the central ways in which this faith vision of marriage is nourished. Here, the couple is drawn again into Jesus' death and resurrection as the pattern of human existence. They come to understand that one dies many deaths in loving another human being. The central symbolism of the Eucharist is that of sharing, the giving of oneself to bring life to others. In speaking of the call of the whole church to holiness, the Second Vatican Council says that if love, "as good seed, is to grow and bring forth fruit in the soul, each one of the faithful must willingly hear the Word of God . . . . Each must share frequently in the sacraments, the Eucharist especially, and in liturgical rites."(7)

In the past the church has provided little support for married couples beyond the initial preparation for marriage and the marriage rite itself. The church today is asking how it can better fulfill its commitment to married couples and support them on their married journey. In addition to holding before them the ideal of Christian marriage, the church needs to provide help with the skills of intimacy -- communication and conflict resolution -- as well as support in times of crisis. A more developed theology of marriage is needed. And Christian couples must offer support to one another on their married journey, coming together, as many couples are already doing, to pray, discuss, and offer mutual help in living out the challenges of married life. In many marriage ceremonies today, members of the Christian community come forward as the couple makes their commitment to one another, to bless and to pray for them and to pledge their love and support. The community needs to live out the full meaning of such rites.

Married life is indeed a superb context for growth in Christian holiness. Its apparent ordinariness is the kind of milieu in which Jesus found God and served God fully. Couples and their families continue to reveal this God to one another and to the world, living out the full meaning of marriage as sacrament. This is a vocation that calls for selfless love in changing and sometimes frightening circumstances, a love founded on trust in the goodness and faithfulness of God, who has given the partners in a marriage covenant to one another as one of his greatest gifts.

  1. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, no. 41. See also no. 40.
  2. A good example is Evelyn Eaton Whitehead and James D. Whitehead, Marrying Well: Possibilities in Christian Marriage Today (New York: Doubleday, 1981).
  3. Joseph Martos describes this process in Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1981), pp. 399-452.
  4. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, no. 11. Walter Kasper provides some helpful insights on the sacramentality of marriage in Theology of Christian Marriage (New York: Seabury Press, 1980).
  5. For a more complete development of these points, see Thomas N. Hart, Living Happily Ever After: Toward a Theology of Christian Marriage (New York: Paulist Press, 1979).
  6. See Mel Krantzler, Creative Marriage (New York: McGraw Hill, 1981).
  7. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, no. 42.